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Sometimes it is better to let sleeping plays lie

Strong casts in two revivals cannot save bad material

There's always the hope, when a theater decides to revive a neglected play, that we'll have the chance to discover newly apparent wonders in a half-forgotten gem. Sometimes it happens that way. And sometimes, alas, we discover only that some plays deserve neglect.

That's the unfortunate case for two revivals now playing in the Berkshires: one a big, busy staging of Galt MacDermot's 1983 sung-through musical, ``The Human Comedy," at Barrington Stage Company, and the other a smaller but equally interminable offering from Terrence McNally, 1971's ``Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?" at the Berkshire Theatre Festival's second stage, the Unicorn.

Let's tackle the big one first. MacDermot, best known for ``Hair," read a bit of William Saroyan's 1943 paean to small-town solidarity in wartime and thought it would make a fine musical. Indeed, he wrote some very fine music for it, fine enough to persuade Joe Papp to stage it at New York's Public Theater, where it was well received. When it transferred to Broadway with little fanfare, though, it sank like a stone.

Julianne Boyd, Barrington's artistic director, saw the Public Theater version and loved it; she has said she particularly wanted to direct it this year because of its message about the power of community and its patriotic but skeptical attitude toward war. She also professes to love the score, and for good reason: It's a quintessentially American mix of jazz, ragtime, blues, and gospel that's both richly varied and deeply coherent.

There's just one problem, but it's a huge one. MacDermot's longtime collaborator, William Dumaresq, here contributes a libretto of staggering banality, often expressed in limping and tortured rhyme. One sample will suffice: ``I'll be so near to you in your esteeming. I will appear to you when you are dreaming."

With such lyrics, and no spoken dialogue to give the actors a respite or help them shade their portrayals, it's small wonder that Boyd's energetic and talented cast can't connect us with any of the characters. Boyd and her excellent design team (from last season's ``Follies," with the invaluable addition of Karl Eigsti) do their best to keep us interested, but the bustling people on Eigsti's ingenious set are too bland to make us care. Saroyan's sentimental portraits desperately need a splash of lemon to cut the sugar (a hint of acid that Saroyan himself was generally careful to provide), and Dumaresq just can't give it.

Too often, there's also a strange disconnect between words and music. ``Our daddy's dead," the matron saint, Mrs. Macauley, sings with her son Homer, but to a jarringly jaunty tune. ``Killed in action," Homer later warbles, in his role as a telegraph messenger delivering the news to a bereaved mother (appallingly identified only as ``Mexican Woman") -- and the music is jaunty again. Lovely, but completely out of place.

Inevitably, in the face of such incongruity, our emotions shut down. Debby Boone sings sweetly as the mother -- always sweetly, always smilingly, always beautifully, but with never a hint of actual human feeling. Heath Calvert brings more complex shading to soldier-brother Marcus, and Doug Kreeger, though too young for the part, breathes warmth into the generous telegraph office manager, Spangler. But everyone is hobbled by generic characterizations that aim at ``Our Town" universality but never rise above stereotype. And if anyone can tell me who Beautiful Music is, why she's named that (aside from Cheryl Freeman's gorgeous voice), or what she's doing in this play, I'd be very grateful.

I'd also be grateful never to hear the name ``Tommy Flowers" again. A wide-eyed man - child who scrounges along in late-hippie-era New York by sponging off friends, shoplifting, and beating checks, Tommy is apparently meant to charm and shock us. For anyone who's survived more than her share of self-absorbed 30-year-old toddlers, though, he only grates.

It's not that Brian Weaver, who plays Tommy with winsome insouciance undercut by an ultimately disastrous melancholy, lacks either ability or charm. If anyone could make Tommy a character to care about, it's Weaver. Director E. Gray Simons III surrounds him with a lively cast (special kudos to Morgan Cox and Ben Rosenblatt) of eccentric misfits, up to and including a talking dog, and Ian Zywicka turns the Unicorn's small stage into a merry mishmash of '60s references, complete with ``Laugh-In"-style doors for the nuns and go-go dancers to pop out of. So much effort, so much energy, so much endless invention -- and all in service of a muddled, tedious, and badly dated artifact of Those Zany Times.

Theaters may revive a play for many reasons: its suitability for a particular cast, its perceived appeal to a local audience, its apparently relevant themes, and who knows what else. But surely one reason should be that it's a good play.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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